The Artisanal Cubicle
What color is your tape dispenser?
That’s not the title of some buzzy new career book. It’s a question that, in all seriousness (OK, maybe in half-seriousness or strained small talk), your next job interviewer might ask. Once content with yellow Post-it notes and the rogue family photo as their sole pieces of cubicle flair, office workers are turning their design-minded, Pinterest- and Instagram-obsessed focus to their actual desktops. No longer the domain of creative fields such as graphic design and advertising or willfully eccentric software startups, the curated workspace is going mass market.
The first to pounce on this unclaimed niche is Poppin, a new online retailer that sells an array of modernist staplers, pens, notebooks, and other work supplies in a rainbow of pop-art hues. The company’s goal: to “fill the design gap between the products we use for work and those available in the rest of our lives,” says a statement on its website. “We’re not another office-products company. We sell workstyle products.” The people behind Poppin are planning to sell a lot of them. Poppin has been financed by venture capital firm First Round Capital, also an investor in such zeitgeisty design, fashion, and beauty upstarts as Fab.com, Refinery29, and Birchbox. First Round joined forces with Shasta Ventures for a $6 million infusion in February that supported Poppin’s September launch.
In surveying the $300 billion office-supply market, Poppin Chief Executive Officer Randy Nicolau and founder J. Christopher Burch (co-founder of the Tory Burch fashion label) noticed an opening. “We saw this need out there. People were saying, ‘Why should I have a fun home space but a bland-looking desk?’ ” he says, noting with particular interest that women now make up the larger percentage of the labor force, a shift from the time the original office-supply guys started hawking bland manila folders. “We saw that consumers were more fashion-forward and design-conscious, and the consumer for this is everywhere,” says Nicolau. “It’s like if you’ve been wearing mom jeans this whole time, and then you’re shown a pair of stylish jeans. You say, ‘I can do better than this.’ ”
He’s betting that consumers will spread the “do better” bug throughout their organizations. “It starts with employees saying, ‘I want my desk to look better.’ Then their cube neighbors say, ‘I want that, too.’ Eventually managers and CEOs take notice,” says Nicolau, who adds that Apple, Google, Pandora, and LinkedIn have been buying Poppin’s products in “meaningful quantities.” Calvin Klein and Chanel have also introduced the company’s desktop items into their offices, he adds. “This movement is starting to get huge,” agrees Sayeh Pezeshki, a 26-year-old former insurance agent who runs the blog the Office Stylist. Pezeshki also offers in-person and online interior design services for workspaces. “People are realizing they spend all their time at work—so why treat it like a forgotten basement?”
As with many things in modern life, Poppin’s snazzy green pens can be partially traced back to Mark Zuckerberg’s less snazzy hoodie. “Norms are becoming much more casual and relaxed in what’s considered professional,” says Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. “You can go into work for a high-tech or media job wearing jeans and sneakers. Part of that is birthed by social networking sites, which have somewhat merged work-life and life. It’s part of a broader movement that allows people to integrate elements of their style and outside lives into their office and say, ‘I may be a person who works in finance, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also be a shih tzu fanatic.’ Especially now, people want to be known—they want to convey impressions about their identity.”
You may roll your eyes at that shih tzu fanatic, but a study from the University of Exeter found that people who worked in “empowered” workspaces (in which the individual was allowed to design the area) were up to 32 percent more productive than those in “lean” (bare and functional) workspaces, without any increase in errors. The more control people had over their office spaces, the more motivated they were in their day-to-day tasks. Melissa Caminiti, a 31-year-old creative services manager at fashion label Madewell, is convinced her spruced-up workspace helps her do a better job. “I thought, I couldn’t possibly sit and work at this desk with its gray walls and plain computer every day. So I surrounded myself with vintage postcards, pictures from traveling, art,” she says. “I’m constantly changing images, which keeps me thinking creatively throughout the day.”
All sorts of design elements—color, layout, special objects, photos—can help energize employees, says Toby Israel, an environmental design psychologist and author of Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places. “I do this exercise with people in which I have them make a timeline of all the places they’ve worked, then circle the one they liked the most and give some words to describe it,” she says. “Inevitably, people say things like ‘freedom,’ ‘respect,’ and ‘creativity.’ They don’t use words that describe what the workspace actually looked like, they use words that describe how it made them feel. The décor of a workspace is laden with messages and meaning. Everyone wants to know this is a place for a human being and not just a cog in the machine.”
But it’s not just about the meaning your workspace holds for you. What can it say about you to those who see it every day—say, your boss? “The way a person decorates their workspace does affect how others view that person,” says Gosling, who authored a study in which eight observers judged the workspaces of 94 employees at a commercial real estate agency, an advertising agency, a business school, an architectural firm, and a retail bank. Observers were given no instructions regarding what information they should use to make their ratings, yet they came to a consensus about which workers rated high or low on a scale of openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extroversion, and even emotional stability. The kicker: According to self and peer reports, the observers’ conclusions about the workers were pretty accurate. Gosling believes judging people by their offices can be a more reliable gauge of certain personality traits than even a job interview. “You can fake being reliable and broad-minded for half an hour. But doing that in a consistent way in your space is hard to fake.”
Still, the prospect of being judged for yet another facet of work-life is, frankly, exhausting. “It can become a drag when people think, ‘I have to do this’ to be cool or hip,” concedes Israel. And while this trend is flourishing in creative industries, you might want to think twice if you work in a conservative field, or if framed pictures of your mini-dog might provoke ridicule. As one private equity peon puts it, a cubicle filled with pop art and neon staplers will likely get a guy fired.
“Some people are happy to just go to work and use what’s there,” says Gosling. “In that case, you have to look at company norms. If an empty cube is the norm, then it’s fine. Think about your accountant’s office: You’d laugh if you walked in and saw a bunch of pink staplers.” Even so, he says, prepare yourself for pink. “We’ll see some resistance to it, and certain industries will be slower to adapt, but it’s inevitable that our standards are going to change.”